The United States and their NATO allies are already making preparations for withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2014 but there is hardly a public debate on either side of the Atlantic about the state in which the West will leave the Central Asian country in two years. That state, by all indications, will be a perfect mess.
Daniel R. DePetris observed at the Atlantic Sentinel last week that neither President Barack Obama nor his Republican challenger Mitt Romney is discussing the war in Afghanistan even if elections are set to take place in November. “Both campaigns appear to have calculated that addressing an issue that is only going to cause them more trouble in the future is far from smart politics,” he wrote.
There is hardly a discernible difference between the two candidates in what they would do in Afghanistan. Both have committed to the retreat scheduled for 2014. Except for a few hawkish Republicans who grumble about “defeatism,” the two political parties in the United States would rather forget about the war altogether.
Last year’s death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated the attacks of September 11, 2001 that were the impetus of the war, at the hands of American special forces cemented the war’s end in the minds of many Americans. A Gallup poll conducted in March found just 21 percent of Americans in favor of continuing the mission in Afghanistan “as long as it takes to accomplish its goals.”
After more than two thousand American fatalities and another one thousand soldiers killed from other NATO countries — even if it is an historic low relative to the scope and duration of the conflict — the public’s patience with the war has worn thin. The lack of clearly specified goals for the mission, since Al Qaeda has virtually been pushed out of the country, further undermines the case for staying.
The attempt at nation building, the fighting of a native insurgency while erecting institutions to foster stability in the country and a sense of nationhood among the Afghan people, has had mixed results at best. There is an Afghan Government but it is hopefully corrupt and ineffective. There is an Afghan army but it is weak. There certainly is no sense of unity among the Afghan people. The Taliban, who controlled the country between 1996 and 2001, remain present and insurgent, especially in the Pashtun dominated south and southeast.
Attempts at federalizing the government structure of Afghanistan and rehabilitate Taliban fighters may well lead to the emergence of an autonomous, Pashtun majority province in the south and eventually either the resurgence of the Taliban in Kabul or partition.
The destabilizing effect that American withdrawal will have is evident. Neighboring India and Pakistan are picking sides. New Delhi will cling to its alliance with the civilian government in Kabul as long as is possible, if only to keep the Pakistanis preoccupied. The military and intelligence services in Islamabad, by contrast, are revisiting their friendship with the Islamist insurgents whom they backed during the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Shia Iran’s sense of insecurity will increase if Sunni extremists return to power next door, potentially aggravating its struggle for regional hegemony with Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni power in the Middle East. The Central Asian republics, battling Islamic fanatics in their own territory and, like Afghanistan, lacking borders that reflect ethnic realities on the ground, will be further weakened.
None of the interested powers should welcome partition. Foremost, the United States, which, after almost a decade of war, would leave half of Afghanistan in little better a state than it found it in 2001, still a hotbed for terrorism. India would object for the same reason but also because an independent Pashtunistan would further threatened to undermine the stability of neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear state. Part of Pakistan’s leadership, especially its military and intelligence establishment, would rather the Pashtun recapture the whole of Afghanistan, not just the south.
Preventing the dissolution of the Afghan state by imposing a federal order on the country would require negotiations with the Taliban which will compromise American prestige. So will leaving it in chaos.
It is probably too late to lament the mistakes of the Western counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. But the situation isn’t hopeless. Colombia battled a narcoterrorist insurgency for more than forty years before it began to push back the FARC. Sri Lanka fought the Tamil Tigers for almost thirty years before it ended the civil war on the island in 2009. Niel Smith wrote of the experiences of the latter country in Small War Journals that year and found the following requirements for crushing an insurgency: unwavering political will; disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal; no negotiations with the forces of terror; absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the enemy; complete operational freedom for the security forces; keeping the neighbors in the loop.
Smith admitted that, “Most Western readers will find the lack of concern for civilian casualties in this strategy disconcerting.” However, a more “ruthless” counterinsurgency strategy, as pursued in Sri Lanka between 2006 and 2009, is likely to resolve a conflict more quickly compared with the “population centric” approach that may be “humanistic” but “takes longer, with uncertain probabilities of success.”
All of the conditions that enabled Sir Lanka to put down the Tamil insurgency within three years are absent from the Afghan campaign. Political will is faltering. International opinion plays a role by necessity for the war effort in Afghanistan is a multilateral one. There are tentative negotiations with the Taliban. Political intervention has repeatedly inhibited the campaign: first, George W. Bush’s distraction in Iraq; then Barack Obama’s refusal to give General Stanley McChrystal the forty thousand additional men he said he needed to win the war. Especially European countries, moreover, do not appear to have the confidence in their commanders on the ground to allow them operational freedom. Finally, no attempt seems to have been made to involve regional actors, including India and Iran, in a meaningful way — even if they will have to live with the consequences of Western success or failure in Afghanistan.
Of course, there is one crucial difference between Colombia’s and Sri Lanka’s counterinsurgencies one the one hand and Afghanistan on the other. In the former two instances, states battled an insurgency within their own borders that posed a direct challenge to government authority. Afghanistan produced a direct threat to the United States but never posed one as a state. Nor does the Taliban.
Stabilizing the country may not even be so much in the interest of the United States but it has committed to the effort and persuaded others to do so as well. Local Afghan allies, mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, and Pakistan are invested in victory. Withdrawal would not only be tantamount to betrayal of their confidence but could also embolden tribal insurgents in both Afghanistan and Pakistan if not American enemies worldwide.